Sports News of Saturday, 19 December 2015
It has been an odd quirk of Mourinho’s second Chelsea tenure that players have frequently been brought in for large sums only to be quickly sold again with the manager having shown little interest in their existence. It is a list that already includes Mohamed Salah, Filipe Luis and Juan Cuadrado, and you sensed that as January loomed, Baba Rahman was edging dangerously close to becoming its next addition. With Mourinho now departed, the £21m summer signing will hold renewed hope of a first-team look-in.
The unremittingly woeful form endured by Branislav Ivanovic this term never seemed to tempt Mourinho to give Rahman anything resembling a sustained spell in the side, the manager instead preferring Cesar Azpilicueta out of position at left-back with the Serb forced to undergo a twice-weekly torment on the other flank.
Mourinho’s unwillingness to field Rahman – he’s only made three starts this term despite remaining injury-free – has been interpreted in many quarters as tetchy politicking on the part of a manager whose summer requests for John Stones and Paul Pogba to bolster his first-team were overlooked in favour of a handful of back-ups.
It is certainly plausible, but either way, there’s little doubt that a new manager will represent greater opportunity for the man who not only cost Chelsea a hefty wad of cash but has decent pedigree and promise, too: the past year alone saw him help Augsburg to their highest ever finish and he also caught the eye for Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations.
It all started so well for Cesc Fabregas, whose defection from the Nou Camp, his footballing home, and into the clutches of its cackling arch-enemy went about as smoothly as could possibly be imagined. No sooner had the midfielder signed for Mourinho last summer than he was effortlessly proving himself to be the Premier League’s standout midfielder, slotting neatly into a high-calibre side and acting as an unfussy, unrelenting conveyor belt of chances for the men in front of him.
Towards the back end of last season, though, Fabregas’s magic touch began to desert him, the oasis of assists dried up and the Spaniard found himself a rather undignified passenger in a side that was eventually carried along the home straight by the power and pliancy of its broad-shouldered defensive figures, most notably Nemanja Matic and John Terry.
Euro Papers: Arsenal chase ‘epic’ Serie A hotshot for January – Eurosport But even the best players hit a blip from time to time. The real problem for Fabregas is, twelve months down the line, that blip has yet to pass. Indeed, its persistence illustrates another longstanding doubt over Mourinho’s management: that when his players hit a rut, his habit of offloading all responsibility from his own shoulders tends not to prompt a full and fast restoration of confidence.
In explaining his decision to drop Fabregas for the recent visit of Porto, Mourinho – a man fully aware of how language shapes perception – described the midfielder as a “lightweight”. Emasculating a struggling sportsman in public is not a method preached in the motivational rulebook, and you always sense that Fabregas responds rather more favourably to an arm around the shoulder anyway. Mourinho’s successor may be well advised to trade stick for carrot.
The recent fate of Chelsea’s other creative maestro has followed along similar lines to that of Fabregas: a blitz of match-winning form the last term followed by an abrupt cliff-drop this, with the litany of barbed comments from the boss only seeming to compound a loss of poise and buoyancy. Indeed, Fabregas and Hazard were the only two players individually identifiable in Mourinho’s final, fatal post-match interview (“The players have to look to Sunderland and Watford and say: ‘I am not the superstar, I am not the player of the season. I am not the world champion, I am not the Premier League champion. At this moment, I am at your level’”). During that rant, Mourinho also found time for a sarcastic appraisal of the “serious” injury the Belgian had limped off within the first half.
It is not unfair to say that Oscar has not yet blossomed at Chelsea in the way he had been expected to, neither scoring nor creating anywhere near prolifically enough for a player who arrived with the reputation as an ingenious unpicker of defences.
After a quietly promising first season at the club – at the end of which Mourinho rejoined as manager – Oscar has since settled into a rhythm of performance which has involved plenty of hard running but a strange resistance to moments of match-winning flair. Indeed, his last five seasons, including his final year at Internacional, have seen his goalscoring output steadily decline, while he has hardly been compensating by laying on the chances with any great constancy either.
It’s hard not to align this trend with the demands of Mourinho, who requires his attackers – even in successful instances, as with Willian this term – to be workhorses first and creators a distant second.
The irony here is that, for a young playmaker, Oscar has often been lauded for his defensive diligence and tactical nous. It’s just that his buzzing, energetic mode of defending is suited to a ball-hungry pressing side; Mourinho of course preferred his men to sit deep and absorb possession rather than proactively seek it out.
Aside from the scorched earth that seems to accompany his third season in any job, the one other major blot on Mourinho’s copy book is his failure to offer a fair crack of the whip to his youth players.
Roman Abramovich has invested more than £100m in Chelsea’s academy system in his time as owner and the club’s youth teams have enjoyed sustained success for the past half-decade – reaching four FA Youth Cup finals in succession and winning last year’s UEFA Youth League. But the only player to have graduated to first-team duties during Mourinho’s second stint is midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who could have a fair claim to have been largely overlooked himself: his promise has so far translated into just three starts this season – only one in the league – and that despite the drain-like form of his central midfield colleagues.
Loftus-Cheek is a calming engine-room presence and a tidy passer (his full debut against Liverpool last season saw every one of his passes make their target) whose outings for Chelsea’s youth sides and the England Under-21s brought sharply-rebuffed interest from Bayern Munich. He could be forgiven for feeling that his recently departed boss was proving more hindrance than help regarding his route to the top.
Mourinho defended his policy with youth players earlier this season: “The players and the agents [say]: ‘Oh, I need five matches in a row to prove myself’. You don’t need five matches in a row … You need 10 minutes. In 10 minutes you can show you are ready, you are mentally ready, you are physically ready, you are ready to cope with the pressure”.
The likelihood is that Loftus-Cheek’s next boss will be willing to offer his youngsters rather more patience.